Solar man

Pub date January 2, 2008
SectionGreen CitySectionNews & Opinion


GREEN CITY Two years ago Tom Price called me from the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast. We didn’t know each other, but he’d read some of my articles about Burning Man, including "Epilogue as Prologue" (10/4/2005), which culminated my seven-part series by looking at how burners were projecting their culture, skills, and ethos into the outside world.

The most obvious example I used was the group that went straight from Burning Man 2005 to Mississippi to help clean up after Hurricane Katrina, which hit during the event. "If that isn’t applying our ethos, I don’t know what is," Burning Man founder Larry Harvey said in my article. "The very skills needed to survive at Burning Man are the skills needed to respond to a disaster."

Price had been a little busy mucking out flood-damaged homes and rebuilding a Buddhist temple in Biloxi, Miss., but the he’d called home for the past five months had finally gotten an Internet connection, and he’d just found my article. "Dude, we’re still here," he told me excitedly by phone. "It’s happening just like you wrote. We’re doing it."

As I started to learn, Price was an accomplished idealist for whom "doing it" means working to save the world. In college in Utah he spent a year in a shanty he erected in the main college square urging the university to disinvest in apartheid South Africa, and his removal led to a court case that expanded free speech rights. He worked as a journalist chronicling threats to the indigenous Kalahari tribes in Botswana and as an environmental activist and lobbyist in Washington DC, where he eventually became the main contract lobbyist for Burning Man, an event he loves.

In Mississippi he turned an encampment of do-gooder burners into an organization he dubbed Burners Without Borders. Price spoke so passionately and eloquently about what they were doing that I just had to go, working with them (as both journalist and laborer) for a week and writing a Guardian cover story about the experience ("From Here to Katrina," 2/22/06).

It was a project and a moment that seemed to capture both the scale of the environmental problems facing this country and the enormous potential of motivated individuals to creatively deal with them.

From there Burners Without Borders went on to create a program that recycles the huge amount of wood used by the more than 40,000 people who now attend Burning Man every year, donating it to Habitat for Humanity for the construction of low-income homes. And the group has sent contingents to do cleanup work after floods in the Pacific Northwest and cleanup and reconstruction in Pisco, Peru, after the massive earthquake there in 2007.

Price became the first environmental director for Burning Man, reflecting its Green Man theme last year.

One of the most notable projects to grow from that endeavor finally came into full bloom Dec. 18, 2007, when a 90-kilowatt solar array — some of which was used to power the eponymous Man at last year’s event — was placed in the town of Gerlach, Nev., as a donation to the Washoe County School District.

It will give the school free, clean power for the next 25 years, saving the district about $20,000 annually — money that can surely be put to better use than paying for fossil fuels.

The project was a joint venture between venture capital firm MMA Renewable Ventures (which put up the money), Sierra Pacific Power (which offered a substantial rebate for the project), and the Price-led burners who donated their labor.

"MMA put up the money, and the rebate from the utility paid back almost all of it, with the difference made up by Burning Man and its volunteers," Price said.

Price said 10 volunteers — including Eli Lyon, Matt Deluge, and Richard Scott, who were in Pearlington, Miss., with us — worked eight hours per day for 51 days to do the work that made the project pencil out.

Matt Cheney, CEO of MMA Renewable Ventures and a resident of Potrero Hill, said he approached people he knew at Burning Man a year ago, wanting to help the event’s new green goals. "One of the simplest ways to do it was to green up the Man with solar," he said.

Price helped guide the project past the anticorporate sentiments of burners. "A lot of people were afraid that Green Man would spell the end of Burning Man because there was corporate participation," Price said.

Instead, this creative partnership has become a model for the future and a job for Price, who is now executive director of the new nonprofit Black Rock Solar, which aims to replicate the Gerlach project at schools, hospitals, and other public institutions in Nevada and other states.

"We’re taking fiscal capital and social capital and combining them in a way that’s really never been done before," Price said.

John Hargrove, who runs the rebate program for Sierra Pacific Power, agrees the burners have created an entirely new model.

"They’re able to do installations that wouldn’t get done otherwise," Hargrove told the Guardian. "Clearly, they are donating a tremendous value to the project. The Burning Man, Black Rock Solar people are very unique. They’re not in it to make money."

Yet the model they’ve created allows capitalists to make money, albeit at lower returns, by tapping into a universal sense of goodwill and a desire to save the planet.

"We call this not-for-profit work. We’re operating on metrics where we don’t have to make our typical returns," Cheney said, noting that the price points for this project were about 25 percent lower than for a typical big solar project. And he thinks the undeniable public benefits of projects like this will attract more support from powerful players in the public and private sectors.

"It was the right moment in time to do something like this," Cheney said. "It’s one of those good ideas that happened at the right time and has taken on a life of its own."

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